T.F.: Enough with Chapter 1, already

T.F.: Enough with Chapter 1, already April 10, 2009

Tribulation Force, pp. 16-20

The second section we'll be looking at today, the final vignette in the first chapter, begins like this:

Rayford and Chloe arrived at New Hope early. Bruce was there, finishing a sandwich he had ordered. He looked older than his early thirties. After greeting them, he pushed his wire rims up into his curly locks and tilted back in his squeaky chair. "You get hold of Buck?" he asked.

That's a bit awkward (Bruce "was there"), but it's not horrible. Jerry Jenkins provides an uncharacteristic level of detail. (It's possible he'd mentioned Bruce's glasses or curly hair earlier, but if he did, I missed it.) And it effectively conveys Bruce's weariness without just asserting that he was tired.

The book could have, and should have, started right there. The preceding 20 pages provide a thimbleful of useful or interesting information, but nothing that couldn't easily have been summarized and quickly communicated as the characters greeted one another here. Readers would have been grateful for the brisker pace. Countless trees would have been spared. And best of all, we wouldn't have had to deal with the gratuitous nastiness of the Chicago Bureau tangent.

Alas, Tribulation Force does not begin on Page 20, so we're just going to have to slog through that tangent before returning to the actual story, such as it is.

"I will get Mr. Bailey on the phone if I can," Verna said. "But you realize it's late in New York."

"He's always there, you know that. Use his direct, after-hours number."

"I don't have that."

"I'll write it down for you. He's probably interviewing a replacement for me."

It's not clear to me why anyone would have separate phone numbers for the same desk at different times of the day, but of course that's not the point here. The point is to remind Verna in as many different ways as possible that Buck has been a longtime member of Global Weekly's Manhattan-based He-Man Woman-Haters Club and that she's never been in their boys-only clubhouse and she never will be because she's just a silly girl. That's the gist of what Buck says, four times in a row, in the excerpt above.

Perhaps the worst part about it is that Buck thinks he's being subtle.* Verna responds with restraint and an unsatisfying lack of appropriate violence:

"I'll call him, Cameron, and I will even let you have your say, but I am going to speak to him first, and I reserve the right to tell him how insubordinate and disrespectful you've been. Please wait outside."

Once again it's difficult to remember the author's intent here, which is for us to admire Buck and to dislike Verna. Her statement here is intended to provide part of the basis for this dislike. We're supposed to think it unfair that she would say that Buck has been "insubordinate and disrespectful" simply because he has been insubordinate and disrespectful. Like all of Verna's statements throughout this episode, that statement is honest and accurate. The same cannot be said for the things Buck has said here. His statements have been consistently self-serving, but otherwise inconsistent.

Buck is enormously pleased with himself, emerging from Verna's office, we're told, "with a mischievous look." Set aside for the moment the specific cause of his self-delight here and just consider the thing itself. This is one of Jenkins' off-putting habits. He loves to show his characters loving themselves. They relish their own victories and congratulate themselves so enthusiastically that readers are left with nothing to add.** The effect is the same as when someone laughs too loudly and too long at their own joke. This would be bad enough if Buck had actually won some victory here worth celebrating, or if he had told a joke that was actually funny, but here, when what seems required is a heartfelt apology, his "mischievous" self-amusement is unbearable.

It's the smiling that really gets me. The malicious Humiliation of the Uppity Woman makes them smile.

The problem throughout this scene isn't just that LaHaye and Jenkins are advocating a traditionalist or "complementarian" view of gender hierarchy. That view is a problem. It's untenable and it's untrue. (It's untenable because it's untrue.) But while it's a fundamentally unjust construct, not everyone who lives within the bounds of that system takes the delight in it that L&J exhibit here. They're delighting in the injustice of the hierarchy — delighting because it is unjust.

Buck's "mischievous look" here betrays everything you need to know about this subplot. They invented a fictional woman just so they could have the fun of humiliating her. It's their idea of a lark. I find that distasteful and disgusting, so I'm inclined to give it a commensurately distasteful and disgusting name. Call it complementarian bukkake.

Outside of Verna's office, Buck resumes his flirtation with the unsensibly shod Alice, she of the leaning forward and the adoring gazes. Alice tells Buck all about the office phone system which, for him, is pretty much foreplay:

"Did you hear all that?" Buck whispered.

"I hear everything," she mouthed. "And you know those new speakerphones, the ones that don't make you wait till the other person is done talking?"

He nodded.

"Well, they don't make it obvious you're listening in, either. You just shut off the transmit button, like this, and then if something happens to hit the speakerphone button, oops, then you can hear a conversation without being heard. Is that cool, or what?"

And so the giggling duo are able to listen in as Verna places her call to Stanton Bailey's designated early evening phone number.

This brings Bailey into the scene, which is too bad, because up until now he was one of the very few recurring characters in this story for whom I'd been able to preserve a shred of sympathy. I don't mean that I like Stanton Bailey, just that he's been too bland a two-dimensional stock character thus far to like or dislike. That's about to change.

The authors have set up this scene such that they imagine we will be cheering for Bailey two pages from now. In the Bizarro-world of the Left Behind series, of course, that means he's about to do something despicable. That's a problem. I really need to have at least one character whose reappearance doesn't immediately conjure up a vile taste in my mouth.

So I've decided to imagine here that Bailey is drunk.

It's plausible. Buck said Bailey is "always" at his office. Maybe that's how it is now, ever since his grandchildren disappeared. He can't bear to go home, where everything seems a reminder, so he stays there in the orderly illusion of his office, in the twilit limbo of grief where it feels as though you're waiting for something that you know will never come back. He feels numb, but not quite numb enough, and so he has begun self-medicating. For the first week he kept it together during the day, waiting until the others had gone home before he'd pour the first drink. But he was starting earlier now, the open bottle of single-malt sitting right there on his desk as soon as the clock struck noon. As long as I wait until noon, he told himself, then I don
't really have a problem.

By the time Verna calls him here he's three-
quarters in the bag and he likely won't even remember this conversation tomorrow.

There's no real support in the text of the novel for this theory, mind you, but Bailey's dialogue here, like so much of the dialogue in these books, makes more sense if we assume that he's drunk — that he's concentrating so much on articulating each syllable without slurring that he isn't really able to pay attention to the meaning of his words.

From the speakerphone on [Alice's] desk came the sound of the phone ringing in New York.

"Stanton. Who's this?"
"Um, sir, sorry to bother you at this hour –"

"You got the number, you must have something important. Now who is this?"

"Verna Zee in Chicago."

"Yeah, Verna, what's happening?"

"I've got a situation here. Cameron Williams."

"Yeah, I was going to tell you to just stay out of his hair. He's working on a couple of big pieces for me. …"

See? Read that again in your best Johnny-Depp-as-Hunter-S.-Thompson voice and see if it doesn't make more sense that way.

What we've just learned here, notice, is that Verna wasn't given any instructions for what Buck was supposed to be doing in Chicago or what she was supposed to be doing with him. "I was going to tell you," Bailey said. But he hadn't yet. Once again Verna is in trouble for not following instructions she was never given. First she stepped in as leader after Lucinda's disappearance without realizing that Buck was going to tell her to just do nothing for weeks until told otherwise. And now she's had the gall to incorporate Buck into the Chicago staff without realizing that Bailey was going to tell her not to do that.

"We have a place for him here, sir, but he was rude and insubordinate to me today and –"

"Listen, Verna, I don't want you to have to worry about Williams. He's been put out to pasture for something I can't figure out, but let's face it, he's still our star here and he's going to be doing pretty much the same thing he's been doing. He gets less money and a less prestigious title, and he doesn't get to work in New York, but he's going to get his assignments from here."

That's plain enough. "He's still our star," so the rules don't apply to him. I think Stephon Marbury had that cross-stitched on a sampler in his old locker at Madison Square Garden.

I don't have specific examples on hand, but I'd be willing to bet that LaHaye and Jenkins have both written multiple sermons, articles or "Gil Thorp" comic strips in which they rail against the preening of pampered athletes who think that their superstar status means the rules don't apply to them. (That particular overdone rant is quite popular among faux-populist hacks who have run out of ideas.) But here L&J are embracing the very same principle. Stanton Bailey is speaking for them when he suggests that Buck Williams — just like Marbury, T.O., Manny, Steve Avery, etc. — is a superstar and therefore the rules don't apply to him. OK then.

"I wish you had let me know this in advance," Verna says to Bailey — yet another appropriate and sensible comment the authors seem to think we should resent her for. "I need you to back me on this," she continues. And he ought to, it's what any good manager would do. But the old sot doesn't do that.

"He was inappropriate with me," Verna says.

"What do you mean? He came on to you, made a pass at you, what?"

Buck and Alice pressed their hands over their mouths to keep from bursting with laughter.

I feel bad for Alice the way she's being led on as ego-fodder for Buck throughout this scene, but that pity doesn't quite extend to my thinking she deserves to keep her job. The giggle-twins are laughing here at the apparent absurdity of Buck's making a pass at Verna in her sensible shoes. But such an expression of inappropriate sexual interest in Verna might actually have been far less offensive than the inappropriate sexual contempt he's been piling on her for the last 15 pages.

"I'm not going to waste Cameron Williams on regional stuff," Bailey tells Verna. This comes precisely 11 pages after the authors made a big deal out of the fact that Verna said "Cameron" instead of "Buck," presenting that as a reason we readers were meant to share their contempt for her.

"But shouldn't he apolog –" Verna starts, but Bailey interrupts her. This interrupting isn't meant to be perceived as rude, he's just reminding her of a woman's place.

"Verna, do you really need me to mediate some personality conflict from a thousand miles away? If you can't handle that job there …"

"I can, sir, and I will. Thank you, sir. Sorry to trouble you."

The intercom buzzed. "Alice, send him in." …

… He strode into the office as if he expected to talk on the phone  with Stanton Bailey.

"He doesn't need to talk with you. He made it clear that I'm not expected to put up with your shenanigans. I'm assigning you to work from your apartment."

Buck wanted to say that he was going to find it hard to pass up the digs she had prepared for him, but he was already feeling guilty …

At last! About damn time.

… but he was already feeling guilty about having eavesdropped on her conversation. This was something new. Guilt.

Eavesdropping? Fifteen pages of undiluted misogynistic douchebaggery and all he feels guilty about is eavesdropping?

"I'll try to stay out of your way," the chastened-for-all-the-wrong-reasons Buck tells Verna.

"I'd appreciate that," she says. And I believe her.

When he reached the parking lot, Alice was waiting. "That was great," she said.

"You ought to be ashamed of yourself." He smiled broadly.

"You listened too."

"That I did. See ya."

"I'm going to miss the 6:30 train," she said. "But it was worth it."

"How about if I drop you off? Show me where it is."

Alice waited while he unlocked the car door. "Nice car."

"Brand-new," he answered. And that was just how he felt.

I suppose, technically, what we've just read tells us that Buck is merely providing Alice a chaste ride to the train station and that we are not meant to assume anything beyond that here. But good Lord — is it really possible that Jenkins doesn't realize that everything he's written about Buck's interaction with Alice over the last dozen pages seems like it was cribbed from a letter to Penthouse Forum?

Notice too the key detail above. Alice waits demurely as Buck politely unlocks her door for her like a good gentleman. Alice knows her place, so she gets a treat. No treats for Verna.

But at last we leave the Chicago offices of GW and cut back to New Hope Village Church where the other three members of the Tribulation Force are waiting for the ultra-secret emergency meeting. Blah blah blah, Bruce pushes his wire rims up into his curly locks and

et me tell you … how I got in trouble today," Rayford said.

When he finished, Bruce was smiling. "Bet that's never been in your personnel file before."

Ah yes, ineffective evangelism that alienates your co-workers. Good times, good times.

Bruce looked up and smiled. Rayford and Chloe turned to see Buck in the doorway.

Chloe stared at Buck's rumpled suit, the lipstick smudged across his earlobe and the corner of shirt-tail sticking out of his half-zippered fly. "Sorry I'm late," he said. "I was just dropping a friend off at the train station."

(OK, yes, I made up that last paragraph.)

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* Now that George W. Bush is out of office, perhaps it is finally possible to discuss this particularly infuriating form of arrogant dimwittedness without provoking howls of protest over a presumed "Bush derangement syndrome." Bush may have done this all the time, but he wasn't the first or the only perpetrator of this offense.

What I'm getting at here is not dimwittedness by itself. I find, generally, that I'm able to be agreeably patient when confronted with simple dimwittedness or obtuseness. So too mere boorishness or mere condescension don't usually overtax my endurance. Yet the combination of all of those things at once I find intolerable.

I'll admit that this may be due, in part, to some character flaw of my own. It may be my own pride that makes me particularly short-tempered when someone demonstrates his own incomprehension while acting as though everyone else is slow on the uptake. But I don't think it's only my pride that makes this infuriating, nor am I the only one who finds it to be especially irksome.

I do wish, however, that we had a more precise term for this thing. "Boastful stupidity" doesn't quite capture the way the boastfully stupid man is imagining himself to be the smartest person he knows. "Defiantly ignorant" gets at the way such a person imagines others are jealous of his failure to understand, but it doesn't quite convey the full, self-reinforcing imperviousness of his ignorance. Simply calling such a person a "dumbass who thinks he's a smartass" is closer to home, but it lacks a certain elegance.

The Germans probably have a word for this — one of those delightfully untranslatable portmanteau words of theirs. If they don't already, then we'll need to invent one for them. But whatever term we use for this self-amused fatuousness, my point here is that Buck Williams — and thus also Jerry Jenkins — is displaying this trait here and it makes me wish Verna would just punch him in the neck.

** Unable to show us examples or evidence of Buck Williams' journalistic prowess, Jenkins falls back on the hack's expedient of simply having characters talk about what an awesome reporter Buck is. That's an all-too-common form of Bad Writing — telling instead of showing.

Where Jenkins takes it to the next level of astonishing awfulness is in his failure to appreciate that it matters a great deal which character is doing the telling. Having Stanton Bailey state a bunch of unsupported assertions about Buck's mad journalism skills may be artless, but it gets the job done. Readers think, "OK, I guess Buck must be a good journalist." Having Buck make those same assertions doesn't work at all. When he has Buck tell us about his "celebrity" as an "award-winning cover-story writer" and then has Buck tell us how his "underlings" must think of it as a "privilege" to work with him, it doesn't make readers think that Buck must be a good journalist, it makes us think that Buck is too full of himself to be trusted.

From a purely technical point of view, this appears to be a simple mechanical problem and something that might be easily fixed. We could posit a simple rule — something like, "Don't have characters praise themselves exuberantly" — and that rule would seem to be something that Jenkins, with a bit of practice, could learn and apply, thereby correcting a flaw in his writing.

Unfortunately, this simple rule seems to belong to that category of rules that shouldn't require explicit articulation. Another example would be "Eating people is wrong." The sort of people who would need to be informed of such a rule are not the sort of people who would be inclined to accept or to abide by it, or even to care much about its existence. Trying to explain the rule to them and the reasons for it becomes surprisingly difficult, requiring one to step back — way back — to explain all sorts of fundamental things one had previously assumed were previously assumed. Dealing with the sort of person who needs to be told that "Eating people is wrong" or that "Self-praise seems unreliable" puts you in the position of having to explain things you wouldn't think needed explaining and leaves you wondering whether it's even possible to find a shared language in which you could communicate such ideas to a person who didn't already intuitively recognize their existence.

So I think there's a personality defect at work here as well as a technical, mechanical problem, and that the two may be inextricably intertwined. If Jenkins were a better person, he would be a better writer. And vice versa.

For all that, though, the mechanical flaw is still a problem. Rayford and Buck might not come across as such arrogant, delusional, self-absorbed jerks if Jenkins were capable of communicating their admirable qualities without portraying them as self-admiring.

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